Shrinking German towns hang hopes on new private schools
The Fuerstenwalder education center is pictured in Briesen, eastern Germany, on November 22, 2013
Briesen High School is among a growing number of private schools replacing their shuttered state predecessors, closed when enrolment sinks too low, as local communities look for new ways to grapple with the impact of an ageing population.
"The state has completely abandoned the region," said Peter Stumm, long-time head of the Briesen area's local council.
Private schools are on the rise nationwide but the increase is especially strong -- nearly doubling from 2000 to 2011 -- in the ex-communist East, where the demographic crunch is felt the most.
Headmistress Cynthia Werner stressed the benefits that Briesen's new school can offer its 78 pupils as she handed an ice pack out of the fridge in her office to an injured student.
"Because we are a small school, we understand each other's needs here, we have an understanding of how the collective works," Werner, wearing a floor-length purple skirt and dreadlocks, told AFP.
Germany's overall birth rate is one of the lowest in the industrialised world, and the population was found this year to be 1.5 million smaller than previously thought in the first census since before its 1990 reunification.
Births in Brandenburg, the eastern state where Briesen is located, have stabilised in recent years after a collapse following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But because of an expected "generational echo," planners are already preparing for the number of births to nearly halve by 2030.
Faced with small class sizes in 2007, the state school in Briesen was closed.
"It was sad, really sad, and a shame for the kids," said mother Kerstin Kaul, 46, who worried about a commute to a town 20 kilometres (12 miles) away for her daughter.
Community leaders thought that without a high school, the shrinking population in Briesen and surrounding areas would be further hit.
"If students have to go to a secondary school in the towns, in the cities, they won't get an apprenticeship that's useful for this agricultural region here," said Roland Meister, who in 2009 was the founding headmaster of the private school.
"They will stay and work wherever they went away to school, not come back here," he said.
Non-vocational schools in Germany have decreased to about 34,000 in 2012 from about 44,000 in 1992, according to federal statistics.
In eastern states, where a post-communism slump in births led to even starker demographic change, their number almost halved.
"If you are a young person who wants to have kids, have a family, would you move to an area where there is no school? That's exactly why we need one," Stumm said.
When the state school closed in 2007, it was his idea to find a non-profit organisation to open a new one.
On a drive through the fields and tiny villages where he has spent most of his life, Stumm points to family homes built after the Iron Curtain's fall and a new nursing home under construction.
With fewer babies being born, Stumm said the government was giving up on a future for communities like his.
"They don't want any schools in small towns," he said.
In Wriezen, about 60 kilometres north of Briesen, a public high school that closed at the end of the school year in 2007 re-opened after the summer break as a private church school.
Last year, a community group, formed to protest the closing of a public school outside the eastern city of Leipzig, ended up opening its own private school.
But Hermann Budde, who for 20 years was head of planning for Brandenburg state's education ministry, said that among regional planners "there is not a lot of sympathy for this solution".
Private schools compete with remaining state schools for students and tax dollars so critics worry more new private schools could leech resources from the public system.
"All of the planning... how to keep the public school system stable, in spite of having fewer students in the region, it all suddenly falls apart when an additional competitor enters the market," Budde said.
Ahead of an expected future dip in the birth rate, regional educational officials in Brandenburg are already planning to combine primary school classes and test e-learning models.
But private school advocates argue their value in Germany's shrinking village.
"In the old thinking, the state had a monopoly on schools," said Meister. "But there is no reason why someone other than the state might do this work to the same quality."